TV highlights: David Letterman takes his final bow on the ‘Late Show’ finale

20 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Cancer charities accused of spending $187 million in donations on dating sites, trips to Disney.

Murray returns in one of the final broadcasts of “Late Show With David Letterman,” marking his 44th and last appearance and bringing the curtain down on one of late night’s funniest and longest-lasting pairings. My initial hunch was no—I mean, who among us hasn’t been guilty of a laughably grievous and humiliating misjudgment based solely on a show’s premiere episode?—until I actually went back and watched the very first episode of Late Night and was reminded just how weird and wonderful and obviously groundbreaking it was.

The U.S. housing market may help the U.S. economy recover from a slow first quarter, after data showed housing starts at the fastest pace since the start of the Great Recession, analysts said Tuesday. If, as has been argued persuasively elsewhere, you can find the seeds of a show’s ending by returning to its beginning, this seems an opportune time to revisit Letterman’s late-night debut, which aired way back on February 1, 1982.

And, reader, I’m here to report that it’s not only the most refreshing thing you’d be likely to find on TV 33 years ago, but the most refreshing thing you’d find on TV if they aired it again tonight. All right, carrying on: As his “Late Show” retirement draws near, Letterman is being saluted by other late-night TV hosts, as well as frequent guests. I’ve always appreciated his astounding influence on the world of television comedy much more than I’ve appreciated his actual televised comedy. (Though I did once laugh so hard while reading a collection of “Top Ten Lists” in a bookstore that I basically started hyperventilating and had to leave the store. On Monday night’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” the host — who so often comes off as an overgrown kid, heaping praise on anybody who appears — was articulate and sincere as he saluted Letterman. Fallon recalled growing up watching Letterman, and showed a page from his own eighth-grade yearbook, featuring his teacher’s prediction that the young Fallon would grow up to replace Dave Letterman on the “Late Night Show.” Fallon praised Letterman’s ability to show how to do comedy that is both “smart and stupid.” And he singled out Letterman’s eloquence when, in his first show after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City, Letterman helped express the raw, stunned feelings that so many of us shared.

The episode opens with Calvert DeForest as Larry “Bud” Melman, intoning like Alfred Hitchcock and paraphrasing from Frankenstein: “We are about to unfold a show featuring David Letterman, a man of science who sought to create a show after his own image, without reckoning upon God. The debut episode then proceeds in what can only now be called Lettermanesque fashion. (At the time, the New York Times, without access to that adjective, declared, “The program’s overall mix often strains for the unpredictable.”) The post-Melman opening features a group of Rainbow Grill showgirl dancers in ridiculous peacock-feather headdresses. He lifted all of our spirits, and he said to me — I’ll never forget — ‘Do not confuse cancellation with failure.’ And I thank him for all the amazing years of television and for that wonderful piece of advice.” Keith Olbermann, a frequent guest on Letterman’s show, has written a tribute that’s posted today on the Deadline.com site.

And then, miraculously, everything essential is already in evidence, the DNA of the show clearly discernible: the mannerisms, the intonations, the gratuitous shots at his corporate overlords, the unmistakable undertone of cantankerousness that suggests he might rip up the cue cards and stomp off the stage at any time. Olbermann contrasts Dave with his fellow late-night hosts, Jay Leno and Craig Ferguson. “Craig would have said hello to you three times and hugged you twice by the time you came out onstage, which was warm and lovely. The first and only celebrity guest is Bill Murray, doing Bill Murray, circa 1982. (Dave’s first show on CBS featured Murray, circa 1993, and later this week we’ll get to see Murray again, doing Bill Murray circa 2015.) The other guest is Don Herbert, a.k.a. Jay would come in to your dressing room and sit on the couch and talk to you for half an hour, which was also very generous (and entertaining; a producer once literally pulled him out of my room).

When I started going on in 2006, for all I knew he was actually built into the desk like Captain Pike from the Star Trek pilot and they threw a tarp over him after the show was over.” But, over time, Olbermann says, Letterman let down his guard, talking to him during the commercial breaks about “my dad when he was in the hospital, and we talked about his mom, and we talked about our respective cases of shingles — all the stuff Dave supposedly never talks to anybody about.” Olbermann also lavishes praise on how Letterman handled the show in 2008 when then-presidential candidate John McCain did a short-notice cancellation, supposedly to return to Washington, D.C., in response to the economic crisis. It’s Letterman announcing that his fresh take on television will be informed, above all, by the fact that he simultaneously loves television and finds it ridiculous. Olbermann was the last-minute replacement guest, and he recounts how, during the show, Letterman and his staff discovered that McCain wasn’t en route to D.C., but doing an interview with Katie Couric on the CBS Evening News.

This sentiment—that you can both love something and find it ridiculous, and one need not cancel out the other—not only became the dominant mode of TV comedy, it became a dominant mode of consuming popular culture, and persists to this day. Letterman is often accused of/credited with fomenting the culturewide triumph of cold, arms-length irony, but more accurately what he did was give us, the audience, permission to love the ridiculous and recognize the ridiculous in what we love, starting with TV. The sensibility evident in Letterman’s first episode is now so familiar as a mode of entertainment—not just from Letterman’s subsequent run but from nearly everything else, post-Letterman—that it’s not surprising to revisit, exactly.

And then the startled humor of ‘can you believe this is happening now'” turned into poison blowpipe darts.” CNN is also honoring Letterman, with the Tuesday night special report, “David Letterman Says Goodnight,” an hour-long celebration hosted by Jake Tapper, and featuring guests such as Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Myers, Conan O’Brien and more. The rec-room, can-you-believe-they-gave-us-a-TV-show décor harkens to a time when actively undermining the artifice of TV still felt not just irreverent but borderline seditious.

Letterman’s debut, in hindsight, still seems miraculously revolutionary, largely because Letterman had the singular advantage of never having had to follow himself.

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